U.N. Report Says "Legal Highs" on the Rise

Can law agencies keep up with the epidemic of new drugs becoming available?

Posted Jul 29, 2013

A new report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states that the production and abuse of new psychoactive substances is increasing rapidly while violence stemming from the cocaine trade in Central American remains high.

 "The multitude of new psychoactive substances and thespeed with which they have emerged in all regions of the world is one of the most notable trends in drug markets over the past five years," according to the report. Despite concerns over new drugs, the overall drug picture has remained stable with the increased number of drug users keeping step with the increased world population. Opioids, such as heroin and morphine, remain the most common cause of drug deaths but there still a major gap in drug treatment with only one in six users worldwide receiving treatment.

 Afghanistan continues to be the primary source of opium in the world though overall production is down (largely due to poor harvest yields). In the meantime, cocaine production remains stable despite large seizures in Colombia and the United States although total cocaine use appears down. Amphetamine use is rising worldwide with the use of various stimulants, including "ecstasy", increasing in most regions of the world. Methamphetamine is still the most popular stimulant accounting for 71% of all seizures. Cannabis remains the most widely used controlled substancebut though figures on production are hard to determine since most cannabis is grown for local markets.

 The greatest current concern is the rising number of new psychoactive substances which threatens to derail current progress in curbing drug use. New psychoactives substances are defined as unregulated psychoactive substances designed to mimic the effects of of controlled drugs. The number of new psychoactive substances (NPS) rose from 166 in 2009 to 251 by mid-2012. This means that the number of new substances is actually greater than the 234 known substances facing international control. Although some of these new substances have actually been around for quite some time, they are labeled as "new" if their psychoactive effects have been recently discovered or if they have been introduced into a country or region where the effects were relatively unknown. These new substances can include synthetic and plant-based psychoactive substances with most of them being synthetic caennabinoids (cannabis-derived).

Despite attempts to control drug use through new laws, the impact of new legislation tends to follow one of three patterns:

The substance remains on the market but use declines immediately. This has been seen with mephredrone use in the United Kingdom and Australia and MDPV use in the United States, to give some examples.

Use of the newly controlled substance can decrease after a year or more (such as ketamine in the United States)

Scheduling a substance can have no measurable impact (MDMA or ecstasy, for example).

Other new substances can disappear completely after a time due to pricing or better drugs becoming available. In many cases, new drugs can be introduced to bypass existing drug laws and are promptly replaced by other new substances as the laws change.

Though Europe and North America appear to be the prime targets for new psychoactive substances, most of them appear to come from Asian countries known for their chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Survey data looking at sources of supply for these drugs indicates that the Internet has become a key supply source for drug traffickers worldwide.

While European and North American countries have effective early warning systems in place to detect new psychoactive substances as they become available, these new substances have already claimed a significant share of the available market. In Europe, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Germany and Spain account for almost three quarters of all people using the new drugs. The United Kingdom is also the European country identifying the largest number of new substances though the United States takes the lead with 158 new psychoactive substances being identified in 2012 alone.

Young people are a particular target for these new drugs. The United States has more than twice the total number of youths abusing new substances than in the entire European Union. These new drugs are also being introduced into new regions including Latin America and Africa. While traditional plant-based substances such as khat and Salvia divinorum have only been recently recognized for their potentially addictive properties, controlling trafficking is becoming an impossible task for many countries due to lack of resources.

While international cooperation among countries dealing with the traffic new drugs allows for faster identification and prosecution, the World Drug report calls for a global warning system to alert member nations of new drugs as they arise. Though sharing resources helps deal with the problem to some extent, the sheer number of new drugs being developed and the difficulty involved in creating new anti-drug legislation to stop drug epidemics before they start means there are no quick solutions.

In the meantime, drug dealers continue to exploit legal loopholes allowing them to traffick new drugs and remain one step ahead of the law.

For the report (PDF).

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